Smack Family Robinson opens with the latest in high-tech colour televisions, turned on to the adult channels by voice command 6969. But the scene is black and white – penguins being watched by depraved adults who find their mating on a documentary show quasi-erotic in spite of the much-debated biological anomalies. Joke follows joke in this stand-up style comedy script that made me think of Tim Vine but with rather rude knobs on. Appalled and fascinated as the desperate drugs tale unfolded, the morals were hard-hitting but no less riveting for that, Richard Wilson’s direction portraying the worst kind of snobbery that rules in suburbia everywhere, whether in Whitley Bay where first performed in 2003 or Kingston where gifted gag writer Richard Bean has now adapted it for. Neighbours squirmed in their seats but laughed also as all the local burbs, from Teddington to Tolworth through the West Middlesex Hospital, were pilloried, affectionately but with considerable accuracy. Personally I was grateful he never got as far as Kew. This was Private Eye’s Dumb Britain come to life in hilarious truth.
For anyone who has had a young member of their family fall victim in some way to the drugs scene and sordid violence that can break out in Kingston – as elsewhere – the one danger of this play was that it seemed a little patronising in its relentless humour. How many of us could sit there and say, with total honesty, this is about ‘them’ not ‘us’. It really is not very funny when police come knocking at a door after a young person has returned from a night out in such a place, covered in bruises.
But this flaw, if it is such, is perhaps necessary to bring home through humour, as this form of theatre does so well when at its best, the truly macabre horror of illegal drugs. That the play kept its moral core intact while exploring this dreadful hinterland of suburbia was evident by the effect of the most dreadful death on stage. The audience did not laugh, they gasped.
The amoral decadence of the drugs underworld is thus captured perfectly and uncomfortably. What better than a flower shop to serve as a cover for a money-laundering operation? The underlying theme is summed up by Gavin, played brilliantly by Keith Ellen, at the end of the first half, when he wonders, heartbrokenly, what went wrong with the sixties dream of peace and love. There was never any violence then, he wonders. It was about love. He does indeed love his wife Catherine, the wonderfully blonde Denise Welch, but it is a flawed love that can save neither of them because it lacks any insight, a gift not so much granted as thrust onto the audience by the dark humour. Matthew Wilson as Robert conveyed with nightmarish quality the damage done to children by this lifestyle, not so much a choice as an addiction, and we are given tantalising insight into the difficulties of raising such a child, doomed from the womb onwards by his mother.
Harry Melling’s chillingly convincing Sean models one of the many things that goes wrong with the love-and-flowers dream of the fantasy that drugs still offer to too many. This low-life low-rent low-IQ young man creates, without knowing it, an argument for the draft. Looking at him on the stage in Kingston, I could not help feel sorry for all the teachers, all the authorities, that have to deal with youngsters like him as they rise up through innocence to the hideous knowingness of an unthinking sensate life in the drugs underworld. It was not just his own parents that failed him but they must and do take a substantial part of the blame, although in the end he must be sacrificed to save the all-important ‘family’. How can these tragic youngsters be saved? I wish someone knew.
Life is cheaper than drugs in this world. Kate Lamb as Sean’s sister Cora is superbly assured, evoking compassion and even admiration, a crystal clear illustration of how even good intentions and ambition can be subverted by necessity when family is the only moral lode left in a person’s world. Even when that family is corrupted it still wins through, when the most important substance of all is at stake. And that of course is money.
Review by Ruth Gledhill who you can follow on Twitter @RuthieGledhill
Smack Family Robinson is showing at The Rose Theatre Kingston from Thu 28th March to Sat 20 April – visit their website for ticket information and a full list of shows that are coming to The Rose.
10th April 2013